What book can't you put down?
August 7, 2005 12:16 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a really good story--I feel like I'm drowning in books but there's nothing I really want to read. I'm tired of all these 'literary' novels where nothing really happens, or the big best-sellers that are all action and no substance. I don't really care what genre, fiction, nonfiction, anything is fine as long as it really sucks you in.

Ones I've liked: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, Positively 5th Street by James McManus, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl, Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, Word Freaks by Stefan Fatsis, My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki, The Brothers K by David James Duncan, Bee Season by Myla Goldberg, The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis, anything by Neal Stephenson, Barbara Kingsolver, Malcolm Gladwell, Ursula LeGuin, or Robertson Davies.

Did not like: Da Vinci Code, The Eyre Affair, anything by Jodi Picoult, Jennifer Crusie, Ayn Rand, or Piers Anthony; depressing 'women's fiction' in general.
posted by exceptinsects to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (82 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
I highly reccomend "Cosmic Banditos", a sordid tale of drug running, stalking, and quantum physics. I liked it so much, I made it my handle!

Amazon's "inside this book
the author's homepage about the book

It's short, but it will definetly suck you in. Rated "AO" for gratuitous violence, drug use, and quantum theory.
posted by cosmicbandito at 12:27 PM on August 7, 2005

Recently I really liked "Oryx and Crake" by Margaret Atwood, "Brick Lane" by Monica Ali and (an oldie, but hey I get to them eventually) "Atonement" by Ian McEwan. I highly recommend them all without reservation.
posted by jamesonandwater at 12:30 PM on August 7, 2005

I really, really enjoyed Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, whose best-known novel is The Remains of the Day. It has a vaguely Handmaid's Tale vibe to it, in that you pick up on the dystopian elements slowly and indirectly. An amazing read, if a bit of a downer.
posted by killdevil at 12:33 PM on August 7, 2005

Stephenson's Baroque cycle. Lots of intertwining stories and compelling characters. It's a long read, though.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 12:34 PM on August 7, 2005

"Life of Pi" by Yann Martel: a boy is trapped in a lifeboat in the middle of nowhere with several animals from his father's zoo. Very engrossing.
posted by divka at 12:36 PM on August 7, 2005

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.
The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers
The Brothers K by David James Duncan
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenger
Little Big and Aegypt by John Crowley
[links go to my reviews]
Anything by Mark Kurlansky, Allen Kurzweil, Bill Bryson or Connie Willis.
posted by jessamyn at 12:37 PM on August 7, 2005

I really liked The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.
posted by stevil at 12:42 PM on August 7, 2005 [1 favorite]

I just noticed you mentioned nonfiction works too. In which case, anything by Jon Krakauer (especially Into Thin Air). They all sold enough that they can be picked up cheaply at any second hand bookshop, and they really are engrossing unputdownable books.
posted by jamesonandwater at 12:47 PM on August 7, 2005

Have you read other books by Walter Tevis? Mockingbird is one of my favorites, and The Huster and The Color of Money are also great. The Man Who Fell To Earth is more ruminative.

Have you read any Jonathan Carroll? White Apples is good, as are his older books Bones of the Moon and Sleeping in Flames.

Iain Banks writes both great science fiction (start with Consider Phlebas, then try Use of Weapons and Excession, then Inversions) but also engaging paranoid fiction set in the present, such as Complicity and The Business.

Christopher Priest isn't well-known in the USA but his recent The Prestige is weird and gripping.
posted by nicwolff at 12:51 PM on August 7, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'll second The Time Traveller's Wife. It is probably the best book I've read so far this year!
posted by sanitycheck at 12:53 PM on August 7, 2005

nature noir: a park ranger’s patrol in the sierra by jordan fisher smith — fantastic account of a park ranger’s time patrolling the part of the american river that was slated to be underwater with the building of the aurora dam.

it’s not one really great story, it weaves together history of the area, the park rangers, and some great stories about the people of the area.
posted by jimw at 1:02 PM on August 7, 2005

If you like Wonder Boys and Bee Season, I highly recommend Empire Fall by Richard Russo and second the Life of Pi suggestion.
posted by amandaudoff at 1:10 PM on August 7, 2005

Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (written in 17/18th century-style English; I'd try a few pages in the bookstore before buying it to see if you dig it or not. Good stuff once you've adapted to the language (I always have trouble with that).)

How I Live Nowby Meg Rosoff. Young Adult fiction, eerie, creepy, scary, quick read. Literally couldn't put it down.

Right now I'm in the middle of "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" by Richard Feynmann. Dunno if you've read it or not, but it's very enjoyable. And in the same short-form memoir/semiautobiographical vein, try The Hungry Ocean, by Linda Greenlaw. These last two are good if you want to be sucked in in short increments--they're good for keeping in the car when you're waiting at the bank, etc.
posted by fuzzbean at 1:10 PM on August 7, 2005

Any of Rohinton Mistry's books, in particular A Fine Balance, a panoramic novel about 1970s India, with some remarkable flashbacks to the 1940s around the time of the Partition, and eventually ending in the early 1980s at the time of the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the subsequent religious riots.

Mistry has a knack at developing both the foreground and the backdrop. It's not just fascinating history -- it's all told on a small scale involving a few human beings, and you experience their limited perspective and contrast it with your own bird's-eye view of history. Because it follows a few characters across their entire livespans, this sense of being lost in history, pawns in politics and elements in a ruthless game of survival becomes increasingly poignant.

The novel is mostly set during the Emergency, Indira Gandhi's famous (and successful, at least for a time) fabricated crisis designed to dodge allegations of corruption, a time in which she threw India into a state of totalitarian control, disposed of political enemies and restricted the civil liberties of Indian citizens, all ostensibly in the name of progress. Every part of society is involved -- universities being purged of "radicals", people "disappearing" or being forcibly relocated, forced sterilization -- but the lower strata of society, in particular, find themselves at the other end of the stick.

I've addressed the historic aspect of the book; but it's foremost a novel, a Dickensian story about society's less fortunate, brimming with vivid character portraits, from a middle-aged Parsi widow to a couple of cheerful and wonderfully colourful village tailors who arrive in the sprawling urban monstrosity that is modern Bombay and gradually deal, often humorously, but increasingly grimly, with the ensuing culture shock.

Mistry is one of those great writers who, in the tradition of Dickens or Twain or (pre-post-modern) Joyce, dispense with cheap or artful stylistic devices and just focus on telling a good, honest story -- deceptively simple stuff that happens to be very hard to write. There are layers of depth and subtle, fully-formed themes, stuff you find only afterwards when you look at all the angles, the character's motives, the undercurrents.

(Blatantly adapted from my submission in this thread.)

I would also like to recommend Patrick O'Brian's brilliant Aubrey-Maturin series of historical novels, starting with Master and Commander (not closely related to the movie that shares the same title). Ignore the "naval fiction" label and discover the books for what they are -- completely engrossing studies of an era (the Napoleonic wars) the lives and careers of two great and flawed men, one a successful naval captain, a brilliant militarity stategist at sea, hopelessly and comically lost on shore; the other a progressive physician, esteemed naturalist and part-time spy.

There's something for everyone in these books: historical detail, naval action, duels, dangerous intelligence missions, love triangles, science, comedy, language and the joy of coffee. Oh, and cricket.

A word of warning, though. These books are addictive; there's a particular malady particular to O'Brian readers, which occurs when they have finished a book and is not in possession of the next one. They will, as if driven by some powerful will, scour one bookstore and then another, in search of the next book in the series. Fortunately, there is now a cure.

I want to counter-recommend Oryx and Crake, which struck me as amateurishly written, unoriginal, pretentious and artificial; it's mostly exposition, shopping lists of plot points, all "tell" and little "show", no depth. It's also the sort of book where the author holds back information from the reader, partly as a stylistic device and partly to construct suspense; I just hate that. Some more AskMeFi discussion here.
posted by gentle at 1:20 PM on August 7, 2005 [1 favorite]

Middlesex, for sure, as mentioned above
The Last Samurai, by Helen Dewitt (unrelated to Tom Cruise movie)
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon
I adore Ahab's Wife, by Sena Jeter Naslund, and have just started her next book, Four Spirits
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Less new:
East of Eden by Steinbeck -- could not put this one down; when I wasn't reading (pretty much when I was in class, walking to class, or in the shower) I was thinking about it
Cannery Row by Stenbeck -- short, but beautiful
things by Sherman Alexie, maybe? I liked Indian Killer, though that's the only one of his that I've read

I love questions like this.
posted by librarina at 1:32 PM on August 7, 2005

Ooh, and you might or might not like The Alexandria Quartet, by Lawrence Durrell. I liked the books but hated all the characters. I can't usually tolerate reading about characters I hate, but in these it was OK.
posted by librarina at 1:34 PM on August 7, 2005

If you like Robertson Davies, I'd recommend The Life and Times of Kater Murr by E.T.A. Hoffman (a character featured in one of Davies's books).
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 1:36 PM on August 7, 2005

Time Traveller's Wife. Time Traveller's Wife. Most enjoyable thing I've read this year, geniunely couldn't put it down. Also, Life of Pi. And English Passengers.
posted by blag at 1:45 PM on August 7, 2005

Two of my favorite books, and ones that I re-read all the time, are:

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
The level of detail is lush and immersive, the story is honest, frank, and engaging, and I think it really is a classic novel.


Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood
I would suggest this over Oryx and Crake. I didn't mind it as much as the poster above (although I do think their critique has merit), but I think this may be Atwood's best. It's a meaty story of growing up that still retains that touch of surreality that Atwood does well in many cases, but grounds it in a world that most can relate to in some way or another.
posted by stefnet at 1:54 PM on August 7, 2005

Not the best writing but A Canticle for Leibowitz was a grabber for me.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel by Walter M. Miller, Jr., first published in 1959. It is set in an abbey in Utah after a devastating nuclear war, and takes place at intervals of hundreds of years apart as civilization rebuilds itself. The plot combines elements of dark comedy with more serious examinations of the issues surrounding faith, knowledge, and power. The first section of the book is based on an earlier short story from 1955. It won the 1961 Hugo Award for best novel.

posted by The Jesse Helms at 2:18 PM on August 7, 2005

Some of my favorites that I've successfully recommended to others:

"The Curse of Chalion" by Lois McMaster Bujold
"California Fire & Life" by Don Winslow
"Folly" by Laurie R. King

Have you read Mary Doria Russell's latest, "A Thread of Grace"? It's historical fiction & not related to "The Sparrow".
posted by mogget at 2:19 PM on August 7, 2005

As someone who had read little after graduating high school in 1997, I was surprised to find myself so enthralled with Poul Anderson's Technic history series. Anderson's works are more focused on plausible real-world science than most Science Fiction, and the worlds and peoples and stories he crafted are vivid and detailed and enthralling. So enthralling, in fact, that in three months I burnt through fifteen of his novels and/or collections of short stories, all from local used bookstores and all for the price of a new hardcover fiction novel.

I recommend starting with The Earth Book of Stormgate and progressing by internal chronology (see the Wikipedia entry above) from there. I wrote more about Anderson here. [self-link]
posted by Danelope at 2:26 PM on August 7, 2005

I second Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. For something even less "literary", you might enjoy The Dice Man by pen name Luke Rhinehart. Somewhat of a cult book and tends to divide people, but I just finished it and it sounds like something you migh t enjoy. And I think you're getting too much suggestions now :)
posted by keijo at 2:35 PM on August 7, 2005

If you liked The Sparrow, try Mary Doria Russell's new book A Thread of Grace, which is excellent historic fiction.

I just recently finished the Bernard Cornwell Warlord Chronicles - an alternate take on the Arthur legend - and I loved them. The first part is The Winter King.

I will also second The Prestige by Cristopher Priest, Jonathan Strange & Mister Norrell by Susannah Clarke, and anything by Jonathan Carroll.
posted by gemmy at 2:37 PM on August 7, 2005

Byzantium by Stephen Lawhead.

by Kim Stanley Robinson.

The Winter King, part of a trilogy, by Bernard Cornwell.
posted by euphorb at 2:56 PM on August 7, 2005

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.

Kind of a murder mystery as told by the protaganist - a 15 year old with autism. The genius is that he reports everything extremely unadorned and without the insight of the average person. He sees the lines and you can read between them.

Brilliant book and completely unique voice.
posted by aaronh at 3:13 PM on August 7, 2005

A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin.
posted by koenie at 3:34 PM on August 7, 2005

Phil Whitaker, Eclipse of the Sun. Excellent.

Paul Auster? How about Timbuktu.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.

John Irving, A Widow for one Year - unputdownable.

Anything by Brian Moore but especially Lies of Silence.

Nevil Shute's The Chequer Board and A Town Like Alice.

Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House is superb.

Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day.

Other people's recommendations that I've not yet had time to read:

Jung Chang's Wild Swans : Three Daughters of China.

Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner comes highly recommended too.

Whatever you choose, enjoy!
posted by ceri richard at 3:40 PM on August 7, 2005

Oh and for sheer escapism, the Kinsey Millhone series by Sue Grafton and Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series are hard to beat.
posted by ceri richard at 3:45 PM on August 7, 2005

The best book I've read recently is Q, although I've lent it to a few people and not many can seem to get into it. The first couple hundred pages are pretty disjointed and hard to get into, but the other five hundred or so are impossible to stop reading. It reminded me of Fight Club, kinda, in the underlying attitude, and it was an interesting introduction of the Reformation era, about which I knew nothing beforehand.

And I'll third or fourth or whatever Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Middlesex. And also Jon Krakauer for some nonfiction, but I found Under the Banner of Heaven more interesting then Into Thin Air. I'm only about 300 pages into The Baroque Cycle, and it's great so far, but you mentioned you like Stephenson already.
posted by ruby.aftermath at 3:54 PM on August 7, 2005

I'm a book-a-week type, and the ones I've enjoyed most lately were Bangkok 8 and Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett. Both ostensibly police mysteries set in Bangkok with a Thai cop protagonist, but they go way into the mindset and lifestyle of the country - fascinating and entertaining, particularly the "local" take on the sex industry.

An all-time favorite is Sometimes A Great Notion by Ken Kesey - a barn-burner and a heartbreaker. (I think it's about time to reread that, as a matter of fact). Also in that vein is Ed Abbey's Fool's Progress.
posted by gottabefunky at 4:03 PM on August 7, 2005

Gravity's Rainbow. flash (really good flash)
posted by hortense at 4:07 PM on August 7, 2005

Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them, Al Franklin
The Travels Of A T-shirt In The Global Economy, Pietra Rivoli
Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gas Mask, Jim Munroe
Fat Land, Greg Crister
Bad News, Tom Fenton
The Men Who Stare At Goats, Jon Ronson
Don't Eat This Book, Morgan Spurlock
Angels And Demons, Dan Brown

Naked Pictures Of Famous People, Jon Stewart
The Copycat Effect, Loren Coleman
Hijacking Enigma, Cristine Large
Branded, Alissa Quart

Didn't like:
Taking Heat, Ari Fleischer
When Will Jesus Bring The Pork Chops?, George Carlin
The Savage Girl, Alex Shakar
Digital Fortress, Dan Brown
posted by krisjohn at 4:09 PM on August 7, 2005

Not new but good:
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
LA Confidential or The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy
Lamb : The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore (not a particularly serious book).
posted by doctor_negative at 4:28 PM on August 7, 2005

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis and The Eight by Katherine Neville.
posted by deborah at 4:36 PM on August 7, 2005

Matt Ruff's Sewer, Gas and Electric: The Public Works Trilogy, or Fool on the Hill. Both reminded me of Stephenson with their wit and sprawling goofiness. In SG&E Ruff takes a hilarious swipe at Ayn Rand, and there is also a shark called "Meisterbrau". That's all I'll say.
posted by ldenneau at 4:52 PM on August 7, 2005

Mating and Mortals, both by Norman Rush, are excellent books about Americans living in present-day Africa. These novels cover politics, spies, religion, food, and sex (and much more) and yet are not remotely spy novels, fish-out-of-water novels, or political novels. You feel as though you are there, in Africa, with real people having real problems. I read both of them in a sort of fever, unable to put them down but dreading the day I finished them (because of the sense of loss you always feel when you've finished an amazingly good book).
posted by loosemouth at 4:54 PM on August 7, 2005

Memoirs of a Geisha sucked me right in. William Golding, IIRC (my copy is on loan to a friend).

I'd also recommend The Lions of al-Rassan, The Fionavar Tapestry (a trilogy), and The Sarantine Mosaic (two books), all by Guy Gavriel Kay.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 5:31 PM on August 7, 2005

Things Invisible to See by Nancy Willard. It is one of the most singularly charming tales I've read.

If you like that one, try Sister Water by her as well.
posted by weston at 5:57 PM on August 7, 2005

I stayed up until 4am on a work night to finish Seven Types of Ambiguity, a real doorstop by Elliot Perlman. He really got me involved in the characters and anxious to see how things turned out for them.
posted by MonkeyMeat at 6:14 PM on August 7, 2005

Neil Gaiman's American Gods sucked me in from the start, and surprised me by doing so. (I'd been off reading fiction for a while.) I couldn't put it down, didn't know what would happen next, and was sorry to come to the end of the book.

Then I went got everything I could find by him, and have enjoyed them all.
posted by Savannah at 6:29 PM on August 7, 2005

For non-fiction, I really enjoyed Shadow Divers. It's The true story of a couple of deep sea divers who discovered a U-boat off the coast of New Jersey. I'm not particularly interested in diving, but the mystery and danger just sucked me in.

For fiction, one of my favorite books is The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury. It's a story about a man with tattoos that come to life, and each tattoo tells its own short story. If by chance you don't like one story, it'll be over soon and you can enjoy the next one.

And for slighty strange but fascinating fiction, I really liked Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuck (writer of Fight Club). The intro grabbed me and I just couldn't put it down.
posted by geeky at 6:41 PM on August 7, 2005

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: thirded.

Also A Short History of Nearly Everything (Bill Bryson) is a fairly engrossing "popular science" book, and spends almost as much time on the squabbles among scientists as the finds themselves.
posted by jenovus at 6:42 PM on August 7, 2005

Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.

Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan
posted by donovan at 7:04 PM on August 7, 2005

What a great thread!
posted by growabrain at 7:14 PM on August 7, 2005

Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady by Florence King.
City of Light by Lauren Belfer.
posted by Melinika at 7:31 PM on August 7, 2005

You might want to try some Daniel Defoe--one of the first people to write novels in English, and way WAY more pageturnery than you'd expect. (I had been dreading reading Robinson Crusoe for a class, and ended up blazing through the whole thing in one sitting, ending at two or three in the morning. My favorite is actually Moll Flanders, which... well, if you like plot, oh boy does it ever have plot.)

And if you liked the recent Neal Stephenson trilogy, Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo is totally amazing and fun and thrilling--you can see where Stephenson got a lot of his ideas. Also, you can get a decent paperback version for like eight bucks, and it'll keep you busy for a good long while.
posted by 88robots at 7:47 PM on August 7, 2005

The last book I couldn't put down was Confessions Of An Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire. It's a retelling of Cinderella from the point of view of one of the stepsisters. It actually fleshes out everyone's personality and makes them more three-dimensional, and while it may not be as highbrow as what everyone else is recommending, it's still a great read.
posted by divabat at 8:16 PM on August 7, 2005

You gotta read Tony Hillerman. The Leaphorn and Chee stories are original, compelling, emotional, and fast-paced. They are mysteries based in Navajo country. Plenty of side stories. The inner battle within Chee as he struggles to be a good cop, a Navajo holy man, and just another dude looking for a lady is priceless. His relationship with master detective and cop legend Joe Leaphorn is really interesting. When you talk mystery heavy hitters, I think Hillerman is more intelligent than Sue Grafton and has much better character development that Dick Francis. You will not be dissappointed.
posted by jdstef at 8:21 PM on August 7, 2005

If you like Stephenson, pick up the two thrillers by Stephen Bury [pen name for Neal Stephenson plus his uncle George Jewsbury]. They're fun, a bit lighter than his normal recent fare, and have quick pacing and engrossing plotlines.
posted by jessamyn at 8:28 PM on August 7, 2005

Correlli's Mandolin by Louis DeBernieres
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
posted by sonnet at 8:51 PM on August 7, 2005

Forgot to mention William Gibson's Neuromancer triliogy. If you enjoyed Stephenson's "Snow Crash", you'll love Gibson's stuff.
posted by cosmicbandito at 9:15 PM on August 7, 2005

Do mean books you start reading in the bath and find yourself there 3 hrs later? I've had this effect oftentimes from biographies, such as:

Heroes & Villains - on The Beach Boys (I know, but 100 bucks says you can't put it down)
The Literary Outlaw - on William Burroughs
The Kid Stays In The Picture - on Robert Evans.

I've also been totally sucked into of late:

The Narcissists Daughter by Craig Holden
Replay by Ken Grimwood

And if you want to be sucked in by being immersed in absolutely 1st rate storytelling, I'm currently reading The Process by Brion Gysin which I can highly recommend.
posted by forallmankind at 9:33 PM on August 7, 2005

Since you liked Ruth Ozeki's My Year of Meats (as I did, too), I recommend her second book, All Over Creation.

We also seem to like the same type of science fiction/fantasy, so I will recommend, as others have suggested:

anything by Neil Gaiman
Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

And also:
The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon

A number of people have already recommended some of my favorites: The Time Traveler's Wife, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Middlesex.

In the non-fiction realm, I think you'd like:

Stiff, by Mary Roach
Anything by Tony Horwitz: Blue Latitudes, Confederates in the Attic, Baghdad Without a Map
posted by jeri at 10:42 PM on August 7, 2005

Big, fat, heavy second for Tony Hillerman. Not only is the writing superb, he's prolific, and the characters grow and learn and change, and become more than they were with the passage of time in that particular fictional universe.

I also strongly recommend Madeleine L'Engle's A Live Coal in the Sea, about a family's history, mystery, pain and redemption. It's a book to laugh and cry and sigh over, and I've given away at least 9 copies of it so far, which is unusual for me.

Finally, I'll repeat my recommendation from an earlier thread for A Soldier of the Great War and Memoir from Antproof Case by Mark Helprin.

The common thread of all of these books, along with the engaging and engrossing prose, is the richness of their humanity.

Gah. I've devolved into cliches myself, sorry. But I still really think you should read these books. :) And so should all your friends, and everybody else who posted to this thread.


PS - Has anyone ever floated the idea of a MetaBookExchange?
posted by ZakDaddy at 10:45 PM on August 7, 2005

Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty about her friendship with Lucy Grealy. Thomas Hardy is one of my favorite dead white males
posted by brujita at 10:47 PM on August 7, 2005

Anything by Hakuri Murakami.

He creates these really beautiful dreamscapes written in the style of a terse 1940's detective novel.

If you're looking for a sprawling epic, I'd recommend The Wind-Up Bird.

For a more succinct book, I'd recommend his best fiction, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

And then there's The Great Sheep Chase, which has an opening scene which has always fascinated me for some reason.

A guy is working a dead-end job in a low end printing shop which specializes in creating those throw-away calendars you get for free from your insurance company or dentist. Big burly yakuza guy storms into the office one day, with one of the calendars in hand. He flips the page to a month which has a banally buccolic photo of a flock of sheep grazing on a hillside in Hokkaido.

Where did you get this photo? the yakuza demands angrily.

I have no idea, just some photo, responds dead-end guy.

The yakuza points to one particular sheep and demands, This one. This sheep. I must know where to find this sheep.

And so the thing begins. One of the best openings I've ever read.
posted by pandaharma at 11:05 PM on August 7, 2005 [1 favorite]

If you can deal with fantasy, I just (an hour ago) finished A Gathering of Gargoyles. It's middle book of a trilogy and I haven't read the surrounding books but this one was a joy to read.

I strongly second the O'Brian recommendation- I read them all fairly regularly when I'm between books.

I also third (?) the Hillerman recommendation, although they read too quickly (3 or 4 hours per book) and the first books are dated (The Blessing Way came out in 1970). Still worth reading, though!

The Curious Incident of the Dog... book was a page turner but the narrator's perspective, while mostly very effective, was occasionally used as a fake, patronizing gimmick for quick and easy humor or poignancy. The bulk of the book was worthwhile, but the few times the author sold out his character left a bitter taste.

You've probably read Raymond Chandler's books (The Big Sleep is one) but if you haven't I recommend them.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:16 PM on August 7, 2005

Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy kept me up reading way past my bedtime.

O'Brien's Aubrey/Maturin books are excellent, as is Chabon's Kavalier & Clay.

Alan Furst writes spy novels set in Europe in the 1930s that generate an amazing atmosphere of impending doom- try Dark Star and Night Soldiers .

Francis Spufford's Backroom Boys is a non-fiction book about boffins in post-war Britain. It opens with a meeting of the British Interplanetary Society in a London pub in 1944. They hear a V2 rocket land and explode in a nearby street, hear the sonic boom and all break into jubilant applause because it proves that supersonic flight is possible!
posted by the duck by the oboe at 1:00 AM on August 8, 2005

Dirt Music by Tim Winton
Disgrace by J M Coetzee
posted by johnny7 at 3:44 AM on August 8, 2005

I heartily second Katherine Neville's The Eight, one of the few books I've been compelled to read while walking home from the subway, it was just too good to put down.

Also, The Compay, by Robert Littell- it encompasses the history of the CIA in a very story-ish way, very action-packed and fun.

Another can't-put-down read for me recently was London, by Edward Rutherford- an epic that follows a handful of families over a very long span of time.

This is such a great thread, I'm going to have to bookmark it and seek out a bunch of these!
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 4:17 AM on August 8, 2005

Heroes & Villains - on The Beach Boys (I know, but 100 bucks says you can't put it down)

This is an astonishingly good read.

Also, I've been having fun with Bob Dylan's Chronicles vol. 1
posted by blag at 4:43 AM on August 8, 2005

Bangkok 8 and Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett, as above

See also his The Last Six Million Seconds. The title refers to the countdown to the handing over of Hong Kong from Britain to the PRC. There is murder and politics and interesting characters. Beats me why this guy is not better known.

Bestsellers of yesteryear- Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil still holds up.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:16 AM on August 8, 2005

comments on those already mentioned:
Hated 'Life of Pi'. Absolutely detested it. God-awful depressing book.
Loved 'The Time Traveler's Wife' even though it made me cry buckets. Fantastic story.
Seconding 'Memoirs of a Geisha' - (it's Arthur Golden not William Golding)
I enjoyed the 'His Dark Materials' trilogy, but I thought the ending ruined it.

My own preferred genre is teen/young adult fantasy, and the best thing I've read in that area for a while is the Sabriel trilogy by Garth Nix (Sabriel/Lirael/Abhorsen).

Bill Bryson is always good, too.
posted by corvine at 6:11 AM on August 8, 2005

Another recommendation for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon and also if you've ever watched Saturday Night Live Gasping for Airtime : Two Years in the Trenches of Saturday Night Live by Jay Mohr just came out in paperback and is really quick and good. Plus for a random snapshot of what NYers are reading that might give you some ideas NY reads blog [relevant self-link]
posted by terrortubby at 8:08 AM on August 8, 2005

Anyone read and loved the Jerusalem Quartet by Edward Whittemore? Hideous book design, wonderful complex, and strange books.
That and The Master and Margarita, Miss Lonelyhearts, and Brothers Karamazov, plus a whole lot a Philip K Dick.
posted by kingfisher, his musclebound cat at 8:19 AM on August 8, 2005

Response by poster: This is so excellent. You have recommended many favorites, e.g.
Time Traveler's Wife
Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
A Wild Sheep Chase
Song of Ice and Fire
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
How I Live Now
Golden Compass

and very few that I didn't like (I was also underwhelmed by Life of Pi--liked the boat part but what was the point of the whole first half? and hated The Grand Complication by Allan Kurzweil even though I'm a librarian)

so I can't wait to read all your other suggestions!
I'm starting with The Gold Bug Variations and then either Sewer, Gas and Electric (loved Set This House in Order) or Middlesex.

We definitely should have a MeFi book exchange.
posted by exceptinsects at 9:17 AM on August 8, 2005

Whoa: lots of books in this thread I put down easily. But on to the ones I didn't:

The Lord of the Rings, Red Storm Rising, Neuromancer, Shogun (all violent, upon review).

The Name of the Rose was one, but my Medieval philosophy, history, and theology are pretty good, with a smattering of ecclesiastic Latin, so I could hack it pretty well.

Nonfiction-wise, I've recently enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell (Blink and The Tipping Point) and Freakonomics.
posted by Sean Meade at 10:43 AM on August 8, 2005

After you read The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night you will want to read The Speed of Dark. They both feature autistic protagonists but the second book is much more engrossing-- possibly because the writer's own son is autistic.

Also mentioned above: Set This House in Order by Matt Ruff. A fascinating tale of multiple-personality disorder told from the viewpoints of the various personalities.

I see Connie Willis has been mentioned, but not To Say Nothing of the Dog or How We Found The Bishop's Bird Stump at Last which I enjoyed so much I just bought my own copy. It is a comic time travel book that takes place mainly in Victorian England. If you are familiar with P.G. Wodehouse's novels and Jerome K. Jerome's 3 Men in a Boat: To Say Nothing of The Dog it will have extra resonance for you.

Taking a quick scan of my shelves I would say Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry is one of the best novels published in the last 25 years. As is the aforementioned Empire Falls by Richard Russo and A Prayer For Own Meany by John Irving. All three of these books should be given a chance even if their descriptions don't appeal. One thing that unites them all (besides their American origins) is the comic touches.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 1:44 PM on August 8, 2005

I'm enjoying American Psycho so far.
posted by callmejay at 5:36 PM on August 8, 2005

ends of the earth by robert kaplan is still a favorite - the section on Iran is especially relevant despite being over 10 years old. - my signed copy is one of my favorite possesions. oh by the way... hold off on buying your books from amazon until they start doing some work on their blue rating.
posted by specialk420 at 8:34 PM on August 8, 2005

I can't believe I forgot Neil Gaiman. I haven't read anything of his in a while but I loved American Gods, Smoke and Mirrors, Coraline, and of course the Sandman series -- are you up for comics?

Last summer I read and really enjoyed Possession, by A.S. Byatt, and then I went on to read Babel Tower. Possession was a bit hard to get into, but once I had gotten used to her style, I was enthralled. Babel Tower was more accessible and also a good story, and apparently the 2nd (I think?) of a trilogy. Starting in the middle did not hurt me, but you might want to see about finding the first one.

I also liked the aforementioned A Prayer for Owen Meany, as well as The World According to Garp, and respectfully disagree with the commenter above who loved Widow for One Year. All are by John Irving.

And I've been wondering -- what's "depressing 'women's fiction'"? Do you mean, like, chick lit? Because I find most chick lit terribly depressing. (Except it makes me think of Chiclets, which I like.)
posted by librarina at 11:25 PM on August 8, 2005

What a great thread!

How about anything by Alice Hoffman or Anne Lamott?

Linda Ellerby and David Sedaris and Anna Quindlen?

I concur on Lonesome Dove: one of the world's best reads.

It's probably not fashionable to admit it, but I love the Harry Potter series.

William Manchester writes engaging historical non-fiction.

Annie Dillard, Fannie Flagg, that YaYa Sisterhood book (though don't bother with the prequel, it's dreadful).

And for pure mind candy, pick up one of Joan Hess' Maggody or Anne George's Southern Sisters mysteries.

Not part of that series, Anne George's masterpiece gets to the gut of the South in This One and Magic Life. I cried more than once in its pages, then again when I discovered she was dead and there would be no more.

Other favorites include Watership Down, Auntie Mame, Oldest Living Confederate Widow, Memoirs of a Geisha, World According to Garp . . . and don't forget the Bronte sisters, George Eliot and Jane Austen.
posted by wordswinker at 8:41 AM on August 9, 2005

Anything at all by Paul Auster. Outerbridge Reach by Robert Stone. The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion.
posted by Framer at 8:50 AM on August 9, 2005

I've been reading more and more biographies in the last few years, and the best I've come across was The Napoleon of Crime by Ben Macintyre, the amazing life story of nineteeth-century master thief Adam Worth--the real-world inspiration for Sherlock Holmes' fictional nemesis Moriarty.
posted by Inkslinger at 10:45 AM on August 9, 2005

Response by poster: librarina: (and by the way, excellent username, it's a frequent typo of mine)
I find chick lit to be depressing as well, but I meant more along the lines of those Lifetime-movie type novels where the woman lives in the Midwest and her children die or get kidnapped or she doesn't really love her husband or she has a sordid affair or maybe she can't have children (this is probably my least favorite plot point of all time) and she feels terribly unfulfilled As A Woman and of course the husband is not supportive and possibly abusive or maybe just indifferent...
posted by exceptinsects at 12:07 PM on August 9, 2005

William Marshall's Yellowthread Street mysteries. Barry Hughart's Master Li novels.
posted by pemungkah at 2:06 PM on August 9, 2005

House Of Leaves.
posted by Shadowkeeper at 5:01 PM on August 9, 2005

Oh, yeah, also all of Toni Morrison (Sula, Beloved, etc.) and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. And I'm *totally* bookmarking this thread.

posted by ZakDaddy at 10:23 PM on August 9, 2005

Anything by Carl Hiaasen
posted by drinkmaildave at 3:33 PM on August 11, 2005

If you like, or think you might like, detective fiction, read Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels. I'd recommend starting with The Godwulf Manuscript which was his first.

Advantage: if you like it, there are 30 or so more of them. :-)
posted by baylink at 2:39 PM on August 12, 2005

exceptinsects, your description of depressing women's fiction makes me laugh! I know those books, for sure.
Are you reading Middlesex? Do you like it?
I think a book exchange would be terribly fun. How does one go about organizing something like that?
posted by librarina at 6:49 PM on August 22, 2005 [1 favorite]

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